Dorothy Bohm’s lifetime of capturing the world

A young Jewish refugee given her father's camera as a parting gift in 1939 went on to use it to champion humanity. IAN COLLINS pays tribute to photographer Dorothy Bohm on the eve of a retrospective exhibition.

At 14 the future Dorothy Bohm was packed off to an English girls' boarding school. As a parting gift, her father handed her his Leica camera.

'It was extraordinary,' she remembers. 'I had no interest in photography and was not even keen on being photographed. But I was very visual, and affected by colours, and interested in people.'

The year was 1939 and Dorothy was leaving Konigsberg, in East Prussia, in the nick of time. For she was Jewish, and very soon her home and family, already harassed by Nazi thugs for six years, were swallowed up by the horrors of history.

Meanwhile, alone and afraid, she didn't at all care for the rigours of Roedean on the Sussex coast, so she learned English in a nearby village school.

Penniless in London at 16 she wanted to study medicine, but a family friend introduced her to the photographer Germaine Kanova, who took her on as an assistant.

Her textile manufacturer father had also managed to get her elder brother to England, to study the clan trade in Manchester. So, fleeing the Blitz, she joined her sibling in the north and studied photography at the local college of technology.

Most Read

There she found both her vocation and her soulmate. Fellow student Louis Bohm was doing a PhD in chemistry and the twin exiles shared far more than Jewish roots.

Louis' mother and sister were murdered in the Warsaw ghetto, and for 20 years of silence, through conflict and Cold War, Dorothy presumed that her parents and younger sister had also perished in the wasteland annexed by the Soviet Union.

While her husband continued with his studies, she became the bread-winner, opening a portrait studio at the age of 21.

Louis, subsequently a director of the man-made fibres pioneers Viyella, came to travel widely and Dorothy joined him whenever she could amid the demands of a busy studio and the raising of their two daughters.

She loved France, Italy, Spain and Portugal, also visiting Israel, the United States and Mexico, but wherever she went she portrayed ordinary people and so became noted as a street photographer.

'But that is an ugly phrase,' she insists, while introducing a 70-year survey of her pictures now heading for the Sainsbury Centre in Norwich.

'The French call it photographie humaniste. And that is what I am about. Because even if I photograph a landscape, there's got to be a trace of the human in it.'

In 1956 the Bohms moved to Hampstead in London and Dorothy revelled in the bustling outdoor life of the capital. 'After my adolescence, instead of photographing brutal things, I try to look for the life-enhancing,' she says.

Artist Roland Penrose would write of her work: 'She has condensed humanity, made it stable and visible.'

Amazingly, as late as the late 1950s, she discovered that her parents and sister had somehow survived the war and were living in Riga, the capital of Soviet-occupied Latvia. She succeeded in obtaining a visa to visit them, and went on to take historic photographs in Moscow and Leningrad (now St Petersburg).

Dorothy Bohm continued to travel to places as diverse as South Africa and Egypt, taking to Polaroid photography and then starting to work exclusively in colour when visiting the Far East in 1984. While focusing always on the human figure, her approach would become more painterly as she pursued an interest in spatial ambiguity.

She cofounded London's Photography Gallery in 1971 and acted as its associate director for the next 15 years. In 2009 she was elected an honorary fellow of the Royal Photographic Society.

The Sainsbury Centre's Calvin Winner says: 'She will surely be recognised as one of the key British documentary photographers of the 20th century, due not least to this touring exhibition. Through her camera she has consistently recorded her subject with respect, tenderness and sensitivity, reflecting a joy and affirmation of life.'

Dorothy Bohm adds: 'I have spent my life taking photographs. The photograph fulfils my deep need to stop things from disappearing. It makes transience less painful and retains some of the special magic, which I have looked for and found.

'I have tried to create order out of chaos, to find stability in flux and beauty in the most unlikely places.'

n A World Observed 1940-2010: Photographs by Dorothy Bohm is at the Sainsbury Centre until August 28, joint exhibition admission �4 (�2 cons), 01603 593199,